Saturday, January 7, 2012

To Thine Own Self

 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper.  

Here in the new year, some of the events I've attended encouraged us to come up with a slogan for the new year. Something more general than a resolution, but a thought to guide oneself through the year. So I have selected the slogan of: “To thine own self be true”.

This comes out of Hamlet and comes at the end of a speech by Polonious to Laertes. While this piece of advice seems clear, there are actually different interpretations. Today when we hear the quote we might understand it as “Be yourself”. Many of us put on masks and facades giving the world a different impression of who we are than our own ideas of ourselves. And there's a lot of good advice out there that to be happy you just need to “be yourself” and end the pretense. 

But that's not what Polonious probably meant. His advice, made a few centuries ago, in the context of other things said in his speech is more likely to have meant that his was encouraging his son Laertes to do the right thing. And by doing the right things, he would be taking care of himself, and his reputation. Now this too is very good advice. When we do the right things, we usually are making things better for ourselves and others. Too bad that the problem is determining what the right thing is.

But “true” has many meanings. For me it generally means reliable and accurate. All to often we end up lying to ourselves. Sometimes we'll build ourselves up, in our own minds, and inflate our egos. But all too often, we tend to tear ourselves down. We listen to our inner critic and let ourselves believe things about ourselves that simply aren't true. Under this definition the slogan starts to transmute into something more like Socrates' “Know Thyself”. 

But, as the physicist, Richard Feynman, noted the easiest person to fool is yourself. But you shouldn't. So how does a person keep from fooling themselves? Well Feynman's answer is science. So perhaps the techniques of science provide a way for us to be true to ourselves. So approach this as a scientific problem. 

What are the things you believe to be true? If those things really are true, what are some things that you can predict from them. Then test those predictions. When your predictions come true, then you can feel confident that your original beliefs are likely to be true. However, just like in science, everything is subject to continual testing. 

And when your predictions turn out to be false? Well, that means that your theory, in this case about yourself, needs revision. Sometimes this may end up meaning you're not as good at something as you thought. But often, given the prevalence of inner critics telling ourselves we can't do something, it will mean that maybe, just maybe, you're better at things than you thought.

So take this new year as a time to learn something new, something true, about yourself.

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